The offseason is about speculation, but the time is now for definitive predictions. With fall camps open across the SEC, teams are starting to take shape.
Our first team to go under the microscope is the Vanderbilt Commodores. Head coach Derek Mason brings back a surprisingly dominant defense. Talented RB Ralph Webb will try and improve the offense in his second year as a starter.
The time is now – here is how we project every Vanderbilt game in 2016.
2015 record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC; Fifth place SEC East
South Carolina – Sept. 1 in Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt opens the season with a barometer game. The Gamecocks were disappointing last season, but hired Will Muschamp to take over the program. While Muschamp has his shortcomings, he has proven to be an elite defensive coach. Vanderbilt must take care of business in its first game, or risk losing hold of the season right from the start.
Prediction: Vanderbilt win (1-0, 1-0 SEC)
Middle Tennessee – Sept. 10 in Nashville, Tenn.
Vanderbilt has a couple games against mid-major teams, but none of the pairings are easy. Middle Tennessee played competitive football against both Illinois (27-25) and Vanderbilt (17-13) last season. This is an opportunity for the Commodores to prove that things are different this season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (2-0, 1-0 SEC)
Georgia Tech – Sept. 17 in Atlanta
While the first two games will be tough, the season really picks up starting week three. Both Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech struggled last season, but both teams have the pieces to be much improved in 2016. This game will be the perfect opportunity for the linebackers to make a name for themselves against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense. A strong offensive performance will make the difference.
Prediction: Vanderbilt win (3-0, 1-0 SEC)
Western Kentucky – Sept. 24 in Bowling Green, Ky.
Like Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky is a mid-major school that’s better than its brand name would lead to believe. The Hilltoppers went 12-2 last season, including a 14-12 win over the Commodores in Nashville last season. WKU must find a way to replace star QB Brandon Doughty, but head coach Jeff Brohm’s offense has excelled at developing signal-callers in the past.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (3-1, 1-0 SEC)
Florida – Oct. 1 in Nashville, Tenn.
This is the first true upset test of the 2016 season. Vanderbilt lost to Florida just 9-7 in The Swamp last season. The Gators will likely bring in a more productive quarterback than Treon Harris, but Vanderbilt matches up well all the same. This game will come down to whether Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur or whoever starts for Florida is able to play more consistently.
Prediction: Vanderbilt win (4-1, 2-0 SEC)
Kentucky – Oct. 8 in Lexington, Ky.
This is a battle of two teams looking for a foothold in the SEC East. Vanderbilt’s defense is the best unit on the field, but Kentucky has the offensive playmakers to change the game late. This one will be a nail biter, but home field advantage will eventually be the difference.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (4-2, 2-1 SEC)
Georgia – Oct. 15 in Athens, Ga.
Georgia is the class of the SEC East, and that will not change this season. The Bulldogs have more talent all over the field, on both defense and offense. Mason leads a disciplined defense, but it doesn’t have the kind of playmakers Georgia has in the secondary. Facing off against the two-headed monster of RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will be a nightmare.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (4-3, 2-2 SEC)
Tennessee State – Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn.
Luckily, this is the one surefire win on the schedule for Vanderbilt. Tennessee State was just 4-6 in the FCS last season, including 1-6 in its conference play. This will be a nice tune-up for the brutal end to the 2016 season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt win (5-3, 2-2 SEC)
Auburn – Nov. 5 in Auburn, Ala.
The Tigers have plenty to prove after a disastrous 2015 season. Auburn went just 6-6 overall and struggled to make the necessary plays last season. However, especially playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn is just more talented at key positions than Vanderbilt at this point.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (5-4, 2-3 SEC)
Missouri – Nov. 12 in Columbia, Mo.
This game will be a defensive struggle. Mizzou is known for its outstanding defensive line; Vanderbilt’s linebackers established themselves last season. Both teams have set quarterbacks going into the season, but neither has proven themselves at the highest level. Eventually, Missouri’s defense can likely make bigger plays on its home field.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (5-5, 2-4 SEC)
Ole Miss – Nov. 19 in Nashville, Tenn.
This game is pretty simple – Ole Miss is just flat out better. Rebels QB Chad Kelly is one of the best returning players in the SEC, and the defense has just enough pieces to make life difficult for Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (5-6, 2-5 SEC)
Tennessee – Nov. 26 in Nashville, Tenn.
The in-state rivals are the favorites in the SEC East, and for good reason. The Volunteers return the vast majority of their contributors from last season, including an impressive defense. Tennessee beat Vanderbilt by 25 points last season, and should be improved this season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt loss (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
Projected record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC; Sixth in the SEC East
Analysis: Derek Mason’s squad showed solid improvement last season, even if it didn’t show in the final record. The defense made tremendous strides as Mason took over the unit in 2015. Now, the offense needs to catch up. The Commodores have a relatively manageable schedule. For Mason to stay out of hot water, Vanderbilt needs to improve on last season’s 4-8 record. Young QB Kyle Shurmur has upside, but the improvement might not come until too late.